The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982, after nearly 10 years of negotiation. Its terms could scarcely have been better from the standpoint of New Zealand and its Pacific Island neighbours.
The Exclusive Economic Zone
Islands were entitled to the same maritime spaces as larger land areas. In New Zealand’s case, the convention justified using the small islands to the north, east and south of the three main islands as base points for an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As a result, New Zealand’s EEZ covers 4 million square kilometres – the fourth largest in the world.
Pacific Island countries were entitled to establish EEZs (in many cases using very small islands as base points) covering vast areas of the Pacific Ocean. A particular benefit was that they could license access to the valuable tuna that migrate through these waters.
New Zealand, supported by the independent Pacific states, also obtained the right for the Cook Islands and Niue (which are self-governing, but in free association with New Zealand) to sign the convention in their own right. This enabled them to accept directly the convention’s benefits and obligations.
With rights over the resources of its continental shelf even beyond 200 nautical miles, New Zealand claimed a further 1.9 million square kilometres of seabed resources.
The convention clarified and strengthened the rules regarding the rights of foreign vessels to pass through territorial seas and international straits. It also preserved navigational freedoms in EEZs and on the open seas beyond those zones. These measures safeguarded New Zealand’s position as a trading nation. It can send and receive goods by ships that, for parts of their journey, must travel close to the coasts of other countries.
An issue of sovereignty
The Exclusive Economic Zone created significant economic opportunities. Although a coastal state does not have the same sovereignty over the zone as it does over the territorial sea, it does have the right to exploit its resources.
The major economic gains have been in fisheries. In the 1960s New Zealand’s small coastal fishing industry aimed simply to keep foreign vessels from fishing any closer than 12 nautical miles from the coastline. Before the EEZ was established, the value of fish exports peaked at about $50 million.
In the 2000s, fish exports exceeded $1 billion annually. New Zealand fishing vessels fish not only the entire allowable catch within the EEZ, but also the open seas from the Antarctic to the North Atlantic. There is ongoing debate in New Zealand as to the effectiveness of fisheries management within the EEZ. Nevertheless, without the right to establish and manage that zone, fish stocks would have been seriously depleted by unrestricted foreign fishing.
Oil and gas
So far the exploitable offshore oil and gas discoveries around New Zealand have been relatively close to the coast. The potential for such discoveries on the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles is thought to be low. But the continental shelf rights mean that New Zealand will benefit from any new mineral or biological resources discovered in this very broad area. New Zealand also has the right to ensure that any exploration and exploitation is carried out with careful regard for the marine environment.
New Zealand completed the process of defining the outer limits of its continental shelf in 2006, and submitted these to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for endorsement, which it received in 2008. It also had to delimit its boundaries with neighbouring states.